Don’t Let Lake Delhi Destroy the Maquoketa River

I would like to respond to the Gazette’s recent article about the fate of Lake Delhi (“Lake Delhi debate comes down to environmental vs. residents’ interests”).

I agree with the concerns raised by the DNR and other conservation groups, but I believe the fundamental issue around Lake Delhi stems from a failure to appreciate the benefits and character of free-flowing rivers and misconceptions about the economics of dams. As a national leader in dam removal, American Rivers sees these issues in communities across the country that are faced with aging dam infrastructure.

It is not surprising that Delhi residents are accustomed to the pond-like condition and may fear what the future holds if the dam is not rebuilt. Yet dam removals across the country have yielded healthier rivers that support natural reproduction of fish (as opposed to stocking), floodplains that provide more storage, and property values that reflect the popularity of riverside access.

Because the debate at Delhi is primarily focused around funding, let us consider three points.

First, rebuilding Lake Delhi at taxpayer’s expense gobbles up a significant amount of state funding—more than the entire river program budget.

Second, there are hundreds of old dams in Iowa whose future is uncertain. How do we evaluate which should be considered for costly repairs and which serve no purpose and could be removed? Clearly, allowing local interests to stick their hands into the state coffers is not a realistic, reasonable or fair way to deal with problem dams.

Finally, Delhi residents have reported large “losses” in property values, but these properties are not devalued until a market reveals that buyers are willing to pay less. A change in assessed property values is not an actualized cost. In fact, analysis of property transactions following numerous dam removals in Wisconsin found that the highest valued properties were those located along rivers where a dam had been removed 20 years earlier.

This result reflects several factors such as water quality improvements that result from dam removal, the restoration of natural river conditions, and the preference for riverfront properties by some individuals. While the current owners of Delhi properties may feel that “lakes appeal to a much wider audience and have a much wider array of recreational activity possibilities than rivers” (quote from a lobbying factsheet created by Delhi residents), there are many individuals who prefer rivers to lakes.

Both groups are welcome to their opinions, but the existence of both preferences means that property values around rivers are not fundamentally lower than those around lakes. Indeed, it is well-known that poor water quality decreases property values, which is a point in favor of free-flowing rivers due to the natural inclination of impoundments to suffer from sedimentation, high nutrient levels, nuisance plants or algae or unsafe bacteria levels.

In short, American Rivers opposes the rebuilding the Lake Delhi Dam and the proposed utilization of $5 million (SF 2002) in state taxpayer funds to create a lake where a river is beginning to reclaim its former glory. The Maquoketa River is one step closer to a dynamic, free-flowing condition. Let’s keep it that way.

The Iowa Whitewater Coalition has a petition that can be signed in support of a free-flowing Maquoketa River. Iowa Rivers Revival has a factsheet [PDF] about the proposal to rebuild the Lake Delhi Dam.

We encourage our members and supporters to contact their legislators and Governor Branstad’s office to tell them that you value natural, healthy, free-flowing rivers and that you do not support rebuilding the Lake Delhi Dam.